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Trump V. Kennedy

Pablo Casals in performance at the Kennedy White House

“Trump Proposes Eliminating the Arts and Humanities Endowments.” So declared a recent article after the president’s proposed budget was announced. Conservative New York Times columnist David Brooks described it this way: “They are investing in everything that is hard power. They’re investing in the military, in homeland security, everything that is about threat and fear. And they are disinvesting in everything that has to do with compassion, with care, thinking, innovation. And it’s almost like emotionally consistent. It’s just hardness and toughness and fear. And everything else just has to go.”

Although these overall budget priorities can be severely criticized, this present essay will concentrate on the proposed elimination of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), and funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB). These steps would provide just a pittance of the amount needed for new military spending. Each year the military easily wastes more than the cost of all government-funded cultural programs combined.

About the Trump proposal to eliminate the three programs, this essay will make three essential points: 1) the eliminations represent Trump’s values, which are philistine, provincial,  and anti-intellectual; 2) as President Kennedy perceived, the arts and humanities (history, literature, philosophy, etc.) are important to our national well-being; 3) government support of the NEA, NEH, and CPB furthers the common good, which should be the main aim of politics.

In his 2006 book The Audacity of Hope Barack Obama insisted that values should be at “the heart of our politics, the cornerstone of any meaningful debate about budgets and projects, regulations and policies.” He was right. In another book to which our former president contributed, How to Achieve a Heaven on Earth, wisdom scholar Copthorne Macdonald writes that “values are at the heart of the matter.” He quotes a famous neuropsychologist who wrote that “human value priorities . . . stand out as the most strategically powerful causal control now shaping world events.” Macdonald recommends “wisdom-associated values such as empathy, truth, honesty, justice, cooperation, peace, compassion, universal well-being, creativity, and comprehensive knowledge.” 

There is little evidence that President Trump cherishes any of these values. Instead, winning and inflating his own ego seem to top his list. As he said as a presidential candidate in December 2015, “I’ve been winning all of my life. . . . My whole life is about winning. I always win.” As to his anti-intellectualism, he follows in a grand American tradition. 

In the early 1940s, as I have noted elsewhere, Walt Disney observed that for many people the term culture had an "un-American connotation" and seemed "snobbish and affected.” In his Pulitzer-Prize-winning historical work of 1964, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, historian Richard Hofstadter referred to the lack of sympathy of U.S. non-intellectuals for “intellectuality.” Regarding the 1950’s presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson, the historian wrote: “for a substantial segment of the public this quality was indeed a liability.” Stevenson was perceived by many as an “egghead,” which one right-wing novelist defined as “a person of spurious intellectual pretensions, often a professor or the protégé of a professor. Fundamentally superficial. Over-emotional and feminine in reactions to any problem.”

This sort of attitude toward intellectuals is widespread in the USA, and Trump personifies it. As the Washington Post’s Chris Cillizzawrites: “Donald Trump isn’t an intellectual. And he’s very proud of that.” Tony Schwartz who ghostwrote Trump’s 1987 best-seller, The Art of the Deal, believes, according to a 2016 article, “that Trump’s short attention span has left him with ‘a stunning level of superficial knowledge and plain ignorance, [which is] why he so prefers TV as his first news source—information comes in easily digestible sound bites.’ ” Schwartz added, “I seriously doubt that Trump has ever read a book straight through in his adult life.” 

Realizing the extent of anti-intellectualism rampant in our land, Cillizza does not think that criticisms of Trump “for having bad taste, for being boorish, for his lack of intelligence and refinement” are going to hurt him. Rather they are likely to endear him more to his supporters. 

But if Trump and many of his followers do not think the arts and humanities—and yes, the intellectuals who often support them—areimportant for us, for our national wellbeing, they are wrong. To think that intellectuals are “fundamentally superficial . . . over-emotional and feminine in reactions to any problem,” and primarily the children of east and west coast elites, is also wrong. 

I spent a combination of about fifty years in graduate school and being a professor. The other professors I have known have come from all types of backgrounds. Some had blue-collar parents; many worked from a young age at all types of part-time and full-time jobs and were good at handyman tasks; some spent a few years in the military; some were good athletes with whom I played football, basketball, tennis, or golf, and increasingly as the years advanced, more were women and minorities. Were some of the professors too isolated in their “ivory towers”? Sure, but no more than some business people are in their corporate towers, or military people in their military units. We all tend to ensconce ourselves in our own workaday worlds.

As for appreciating the arts and humanities, of course we should. They bring more beauty into our lives and teach us all sorts of valuable lessons, both about ourselves and the world around us. Most importantly, they can teach us how to live better lives.

In a 1977 book, A Guide for the Perplexed, sixty-five-year-old economist and environmentalist E. F. Schumacher pointed out how difficult it was for humans to learn how to live properly. They want to be happy, but they don’t know what they need for happiness. And few can find anyone to guide them toward what they need. 

Many college freshmen and other young adults find themselves in this predicament. They may think a well-paying job and finding true love may make them happy. But ten or twenty years later, how many of them are satisfied?

If they’re lucky, however, they may take some college courses that awaken their spirits, that lead them to think about what is important in life, that enable them to realize better how the world works, and how much beauty is in it. 

In a literature course they may read works like Tolstoy’s “The Death of Ivan Ilyich” and Arthur Miller’s play “Death of a Salesman.” From both a young student might learn a valuable lesson: a poorly-thought-out life can be tragic. This lesson might reinforce a sentence they read in a philosophy course: “The unexamined life is not worth living” (Socrates). 

They may also read poetry that awakens them more to the beauty that exists in this world. Or perhaps a course in music or art appreciation will have that effect. As John Muir, to whom we a owe a great debt for some of our National Parks like Yosemite, said: “Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul alike—see here for a recent article that cites scientific proof for such a claim. He also warned us about “eagerly trying to make everything dollarable.” Like Abraham Lincoln, who amidst war and other woes often found consolation in poetry, Muir was a lover of the Scotsman Robert Burns’s poetry

Perhaps one of the greatest defenses of the value of poetry for our national welfare comes from a 1963 speechPresident John Kennedy gave in memory of the poet Robert Frost—a speech that today seems like a direct rebuke of Trump’s mindset. (JFK also valued history highly, having previously written Why England Slept and the Pulitzer-Prize-winning (1957) Profiles in Courage):

When power leads men towards arrogance, poetry reminds him of his limitations. When power narrows the areas of man's concern, poetry reminds him of the richness and diversity of his existence. When power corrupts, poetry cleanses. For art establishes the basic human truth which must serve as the touchstone of our judgment. . . .

If sometimes our great artist[s] have been the most critical of our society, it is because their sensitivity and their concern for justice, which must motivate any true artist, makes him aware that our Nation falls short of its highest potential. I see little of more importance to the future of our country and our civilization than full recognition of the place of the artist [my emphasis].

If art is to nourish the roots of our culture, society must set the artist free to follow his vision wherever it takes him. We must never forget that art is not a form of propaganda; it is a form of truth.

After his brother’s assassination just a month later, Senator Robert Kennedy increasingly turned to literature to console himself. The Greek dramatists Aeschylus and Sophocles, the poets Shakespeare, Keats, and Tennyson, and the novelist Camus were among those he read and quoted.

Regarding the importance of the humanities, much has been written. Martha Nussbaum’s Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities (2016 edition) is a good recent example. In my “Do the Humanities Matter in Hard Times?” (2009), I indicated that they were also needed in the very non-democratic Soviet Union during the Siege of Leningrad, when about one million Leningraders died, many of them from starvation. In this besieged city some believed reading Tolstoy’s War and Peace, seeing emaciated musicians and singers perform Tchaikovsky's opera Queen of Spades, hearing an old man playing a beautiful violin melody in a bomb-shelter as German bombs exploded outside, or listening to poets or Shostakovich's Seventh (Leningrad) Symphony over Radio Leningrad strengthened their resolve to get through their own terrible ordeal.

OK, some might say, but as valuable as the arts and humanities are, why should the government use my tax dollars to fund them? The 1965 legislation that established the NEA and NEH offers a partial answer. “The encouragement and support of national progress and scholarship in the humanities and the arts, while primarily a matter for private and local initiative, are also appropriate matters of concern to the Federal Government. . . . Democracy demands wisdom and vision in its citizens. It must therefore foster and support a form of education, and access to the arts and the humanities, designed to make people of all backgrounds and wherever located masters of their technology and not its unthinking servants.”

Two years after establishing the NEA and NEH, the CPB was started. It remains “the largest single source of funding for public radio, television,” and related online services. “More than 70 percent of its funding [goes] to nearly 1,500 locally owned public radio and television stations,” which broadcast such programs as Masterpiece Theater and American Masters.

Among the additional mindboggling number of worthwhile projects and programs receiving funding from these three institutions only a few can be mentioned. One is Ken Burns’s Civil War documentary series, viewed by 38 million Americans, and another is the PBS Newshour. (Personally, I witnessed the positive effects of NEH grant money from 1973 to 1975 as director of A Southeastern Michigan Consortium on Gerontology & the Humanities, and from 1976 to 1980 as a panelist-consultant for NEH’s Public Programs Division.)

In the last fiscal year the NEA and NEH each were allocated about $148 million. The CPB, received $445 million. One source estimated that “if you make $50,000 a year, spending the equivalent of what the government spends on these three programs would be like spending less than $10.” But Trump is unwilling to allocate such an amount. Instead he proposes to do things like build a 30-foot-high wall along our Mexican border, the cost of which is estimated to be between 12 and 21 billion dollars.

Toward the end of his remarks honoring Robert Frost, JFK said, “I look forward to an America which will steadily raise the standards of artistic accomplishment and which will steadily enlarge cultural opportunities for all of our citizens.” Trump couldn’t care less.